The Olympics are now in full swing, with more than 10,500 athletes from 205 different countries in Rio de Janeiro for the summer games. At this elite level the winning margins are increasingly narrow – and when all else is equal the difference between gold and silver may come down to something as seemingly simple as what an athlete eats. But of course, what’s on the menu is far from simple, and in the athletes village in Rio a team of 2,500 will be working around the clock to serve 60,000 meals a day.
At this level, elite athletes are likely to take a personalised approach to their nutrition – with their diets meticulously planned, tested, and often underpinned by the latest research – which has exploded over the past few years and continues to grow at a rapid rate.
But the meticulous approach to food and diet taken by modern day Olympians is in stark contrast to some of the earliest ancient Greek athletes. Take Charmis, the Spartan winner of the Olympic short sprint in 668BC, who is reported to have eaten a special diet of dried figs throughout the games. While other typical early Olympians lived sparingly on barley bread and cheese.
The ancient Greek trainer Pythagoras – not to be confused with the famous Greek philosopher and mathematician – then introduced the concept of eating meat into the diets of athletes in the middle of the fifth century. And from there athletes didn’t look back and one of the first to incorporate meat into his training diet was middle distance runner Dromeus of Stymhalos. He had two victories in the dolichos (long-foot race) at both Olympia and the Pythian Games, three at Isthmian, and five victories at the Nemian games – which led to meat being seriously considered as a nutritional strategy.
Modern methods of eating
The first detailed recording of dietary intakes during the modern Olympic games didn’t appear until the 1936 Berlin Games. Here, a study of athletes' diets found that many would dine on two steaks a meal, and sometimes poultry – with nearly half a kilogram of meat eaten daily – while pre-event meals consisted of three steaks, eggs and meat extract.